Chemical and biological work-related risks across occupations in Europe: a review
Background Work-related health inequalities are determined to some extent by an unequal exposure to chemical and biological risk factors of disease. Although their potential economic burden in the European Union (EU-25) might be substantial, comprehensive reviews focusing on the distribution of these risks across occupational groups are limited. Thus, the main objective of this review is to provide a synopsis of the exposure to chemical and biological hazards across occupational groups. In addition, main industrial applications of hazardous substances are identified and some epidemiological evidence is discussed regarding societal costs and incidence rates of work-related diseases.
Methods Available lists of carcinogens, sensitisers, mutagens, reprotoxic substances and biological hazards were consulted. For each work-related hazard the main industrial application was identified in order to assess which ISCO occupational groups may be associated with direct exposure. Where available, information on annual tonnage production, risk assessment of the substances and pathogens, and other relevant data were collected and reported.
Results Altogether 308 chemical and biological hazards were identified which may account to at least 693 direct exposures. These hazards concentrate on the following major occupational groups: technicians (ISCO 3), operators (ISCO 8), agricultural workers (ISCO 6) and workers in elementary occupations (ISCO 9). Common industrial applications associated with increased exposure rates relate among others to: (1) production or application of pigments, resins, cutting fluids, adhesives, pesticides and cleaning products, (2) production of rubber, plastics, textiles, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics, and (3) in agriculture, metallurgy and food processing industry, Societal costs of the unequal distribution of chemical and biological hazards across occupations depend on the corresponding work-related diseases and may range from 2900 EUR to 126000 EUR per case/year.
Conclusions Risk of exposure to chemical and biological risks and work-related disease incidence are highly concentrated on four occupational groups. The unequal burden of exposure across occupations is an important contributing factor leading to health inequalities in society. The bulk of societal costs, however, are actually being borne by the workers themselves. There is an urgent need of taking into account the health impact of production processes and services on workers’ health.